I am drawn to the quiet and the sad, always have been. I'm not particularly dark, I can't imagine anyone describing me as miserable or angst-ridden. Those who know me well, however, know I enjoy a good wallow now and again, a solid tri-annual cry never hurts. And it's good for your skin. I listen to some real downer music, I love a healthy dose of melancholy. I'm a little morbid, having thought and re-thought my own funeral more than once, but, really, that's just party-planning. As I type this I'm wearing a summer-weight lavender sweater, for God's sake, how dark could I possibly be?
But it should surprise no one I was counting down the days until Marsha Norman's 'night, Mother (1983) began its run at my theatre. The story of a mother and daughter dealing with their pink-elephant-past, it stars none other than Megan Follows and her real life mother, Dawn Greenhalgh. I mean, seriously, who could ask for more?
The play takes place in middle-America, location unspecified. The set is the less-than-great room of a tiny bungalow and reminds me of every house I've ever known, basic and straight-forward, hiding nothing, so it seems. One of those standard oak kitchen tables, machine-spun legs and uncomfortable, spindled chair-backs, something you'd find on-sale at Leon's. There are candy dishes all over, needle-point projects, terrible furniture with faux-wood detailing set into the scratchy burlap fabric, tiny legs holding the bulky thing up. Afghans. Linoleum floors. Harvest gold appliances. Cheese Whiz and Thousand Islands dressing. The remnants of daily life.
Megan plays Jessie Cates, a woman in her late 30s/early 40s who appears quiet and calm. Dawn plays Thelma (my Grandma's name, incidentally), Jessie's mother. She wears elastic-waisted polyester slacks, the kind every woman (of a certain age) in my family wore. They are grey. She wears orthopedic shoes, beige, and a floral blouse of a man-made material. They are familiar, these women, sharing a house and a set of opposing memories. Denial runs rampant here. The play begins with Jessie searching the attic for her father's gun. Jessie announces she'll kill herself tonight, in a couple of hours. The play is in real-time, clocks visible, and I know what time it ends.
I could watch this kind of theatre all day long. Aside from rich characters and a compelling hook, the technical side thrills me. Watching these women, these incredible actors, inhabit this house as if it is real, seeing them move about, wash dishes in a real sink, heat cocoa on a working stove - All of this is a marvel! It all rests upon the immense talents of two women. Ninety minutes of talking, each errand and activity laid out in the text. There are no chorus members, no kick lines to distract, no musical numbers or intermission to break the tension or catch a breath. A real feat, if nothing else.
Dawn Greenhalgh, one of the great salt-of-the-earth Canadian actors, is a feisty lady. Some might even call her an old-school broad. She smokes and she swears and she tells it like it is. While the character has some of that, Dawn manages to quell so much, to appear meek and old in a way that she most-certainly is not. It's hard to watch and utterly moving. When she goes to her knees to gather the manicure set she has thrown on the floor, it hurts. Megan, dowdy in Mom Jeans and stringy hair, buries the effervescence that typically pours from her face. The physicality of these performances alone worth the price of admission.
Some patrons leave the theatre looking defeated, broken-down, even angry. Not everyone can see past the devastating outcome or the bleak lives these women lead. 'night, Mother is a cautionary tale of what happens to things left unsaid, when we glaze-over and check-out, what ends-up when parents forget their children are no longer theirs, but rather, as Jessie says in the final moments, what becomes of that child.
(Above: Dawn and Megan, 2007)